Getting to Bear Valley Ski Area, on the westslope of the Sierras, is a journey in itself. Along Highway 4, you cut across the heart of Central Valley, with its rows of almond orchards, strawberry fields and hunched-over migrant workers. The feedlots, where the cows are packed so tightly together that they’ve become smeared in their own excrement, make you wish you were a vegetarian. Then the road climbs into the rolling foothills of blonde grasses and oak trees, into old 49er towns like Angel’s Camp and Murphys, which has one of California’s oldest saloons.

Strange that this is the start of a ski trip.

The road continues upward, past a place called Big Trees. Which is what you see—great big majestic trees that lean over the road like the walls of a canyon. From there, Highway 4 continues its long journey to an abrupt end at Bear Valley—an old school ski area known for its family friendly atmosphere, great terrain that doesn’t get skied that often, and for being near the crest of the High Sierra.

But few people have heard about it, and fewer still know where it is.

As the crow flies, Bear Valley is only 20 miles north of Yosemite National Park and six miles south of Kirkwood, but from the ski area, it takes three hours to drive to either place. Up and down and round she goes—that’s how you get around up here.

With 1,600 acres, “soft boundaries” for accessible backcountry skiing, 1,900 feet of vertical, and 360 inches of annual snowfall, Bear Valley is worth the drive. But it’s certainly, um, different.

Characterized by locals as “upside down,” the upper mountain has all the beginner and intermediate terrain, while the aggressive skiing is on the lower half. You park (for free) at mid-mountain next to an old day lodge. There you will probably find a long line of beginners and families waiting to rent skis. Brown baggers aren’t stuffed into a dingy basement, and you might find a mom at the cafeteria plugging in her Crockpot. You also might find General Manager Jim Gentling at the ticket window, or the rental zone, or even fixing a door. At night, Gentling helps at the restaurants and bars, while longtime ski patroller Bill Gillespie may pull double duty as a bartender. It’s all part of the community atmosphere. As one skier recently stated, “Bear Valley is a pocket of goodness.”

The resort feels like it is from another time. Five of the eight lifts are old Riblet doubles, probably still the originals from when Bear Valley first opened in the mid-1960s. And while we should protect and patronage those resorts that remind us of how skiing used to be, there are times when a fresh coat of paint would go a long way. Bear Valley’s infrastructure and lodging are creaky, and dining options are few, meaning those who stay overnight don’t have a lot of choices. The resort has long planned to upgrade its facilities and redevelop the village. The Forest Service recently approved the plan, which most locals say would give a much-needed boost to a ski area that is, sadly, barely hanging on. The financial meltdown of 2008 has lingered here, and last winter’s dearth of snowfall put a severe hurt on the area’s bottom line.

But with great terrain, and down-home culture that promotes hanging out with family and friends, the ski area already has a character that so many try to imitate. As plans move forward to refresh the area, Bear Valley marches on as the cool little funky ski zone at the end of a road in the middle of the Sierra.

Details, Details

Bear Valley Mountain
Lift Ticket: $62
Season Pass: $399 (early season)
Annual Snowfall: 360 inches
Vertical Feet: 1,900
Don’t Miss: The Grizzly Chair has the best lift-served terrain, but for an untracked experience check out Mountain Adventure Seminars. They offer guided tours and avalanche courses.

Posted In: Stories


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  • Tyler Scales

    I love my Mountain. Used to work there through High School. Arnold and BV for life.

  • Phil

    What does stinky feed lots have to do with a gem like Bear Valley? And bent over farm workers? The article makes you want to turn the page in the first few words!

  • Robin

    After becoming disillusioned by the trek up to Tahoe, I head up to Bear Valley most weekends for resort and backcountry skiing. It is so accessible from the Bay Area it is crazy that this area is still flying below the radar. The mountain also hosts an annual Telefest and one of California’s only ski mountaineering races. BTW – seeing as the food economy is apparently very important to the article, Sarafina’s in Arnold is a fravorite post-ski dining option and the food is even better at Mineral in Murphys.

  • Tim Kennedy

    This article does not do justice to the best kept secret. Some of the best powder runs in the world. Their is nothing quite like fresh powder at the top of the ridge before dropping off into Strawberry fields,or taking on Grissley….liftline over the rocks or around, and careful not to fall head first into a 20 foot tree well ,that’s 20 feet deep. And spring skiing is the best anywhere. If you want an appre ski life try Vail or Tahoe…but leave Bear for the real ski Gods. Tim Kennedy

  • David Rothschild

    Thank you for writing an average review about Bear Valley. I am glad that this article will continue to keep Bear Valley a well kept secret from Bay Area folks.

    I used to ski in Kirkwood / Squaw for 5 years before discovering this Gem. Many people don’t know this fact, It is exactly a 3 HOUR DRIVE from east bay even after a heavy snow storm. Caltrans does an amazing job clearing the snow and the best part is weekend traffic is super light unlike Tahoe and Kirkwood routes, which take 4 hours (normally) one way and sometimes 6 hours after a snow storm. People don’t realize that the slow beginner lifts are offset by absence of lift lines. Weekend lift lines in Tahoe can take 15-20 mins every time you take a run.

    Après ski : There are three great places to eat and drink at the Bear Valley village; the village lodge has a huge atrium that kids love to make new friends at after a long day of skiing. The best way to enjoy a weekend in BV with your family is to rent a condo (search on craigslist gold country vacation rentals for great deals). The other cool thing is you drive in on a Friday nite with a cooler of groceries and you don’t have to use your car again till you leave on Sunday afternoon kids sledding hill is across the village

  • Larry Feldman

    TIM: I haven’t spoken to you in years. I’ve been in the Caribbean………write me @ Larry…..from San Francisco………Now living in Washington State. George Moore found you a few years ago……..we miss you Dude!

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